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oil painting

© Geffrye Museum, London. Purchased with the assistance of the Art Fund, the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the Geffrye Museum.

Group portrait, possibly of the Brewster Family, in a domestic interior, oil on canvas, signed by Thomas Bardwell and dated 1736. It is in a carved pine frame with a gilded finish and acanthus leaf and flower bud decoration. The frame is not original to the picture and was made in England in c.1665-1725.
Object type: oil painting
Object number: 42/2006

More Information:

Detailed Description: +/-

Title/Model: Group portrait, possibly of the Brewster family, in a domestic interior (descriptive title)
Physical Description:
Painting, oil on canvas in a carved, gilded pine frame.
Materials & technique: oil on canvas in a carved, gilded pine frame
Dimensions: Height 123cm (frame)
Width 147cm (frame)
Height 101cm (view)
Width 124cm (view)

History: +/-

Date: 1736 (painted)
Period: Georgian (1714-1837)
Artist/Maker Names: Thomas Bardwell (artist)
Object History:
This painting was acquired from Elwes & Hanham Ltd in 2005. Before that it was in the private collection of Dorothy W. and F. Otto Haas.

On the back of the picture there is a handwritten label identifying the sitters as the 'Brewsters of Beccles' and stating that it was painted by Bardwell in 1736. Charles Newton, Curator of Paintings and Drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London commented that the label was written in the early 20th century.

The painter Thomas Bardwell was born in East Anglia in 1704 and died in Norwich on 09/09/1767. He probably began his career as a decorative painter and developed a decorative house painting and paint supply business in the 1720s and 30s. This painting, along with another conversation piece dating from 1736, are his earliest known portraits. They are part of a small group of his conversation pieces which survive from between 1736 and 1740. By 1740 he was very active as a portraitist. He wrote a treatise entitled The Practice of Painting and Perspective made Easy which was published in 1756.

David Lindley, a Trustee and Archivist of Beccles and District Museum carried out research into the Brewster family in 1997. Francis Brewster, a linen and woollen draper married Margaret nee Tucke in 1718. They had nine children who were baptised in Beccles between 1718 and 1732. Francis Brewster paid tax on a house at 11 Newmarket Beccles in 1727 and it was suggested by David Lindley that this portrait depicts the interior of this house, however this has not been verified. The house survived until 1898 when it was given a new facade. The house was demolished in the 1940s. Brewster became a member of the corporation of Beccles Fen in 1719 and served as Portreeve (like a Mayor) in 1723 and 1738.

Ben Elwes, a dealer from Elwes and Hanham Ltd used the burial register of St Michael's Church in Beccles in Lowestoft Public Record Office to identify the four children in the portrait as Elizabeth b. 1720, Margaret, b. 1722, Rebecca b. 1725 and Oliver, b. 1728. These were the only surviving children of Francis Brewster and Margaret Tucke. Francis Brewster's wife, Margaret, died in 1734 and Brewster himself died in 1747/8.

There is also a picture by Thomas Bardwell entitled The Brewster Family at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, USA. This was donated to Colonial Williamsburg by David Stockwell and has a similar handwritten label attached to the back which records the identity of the sitters as 'Brewsters of Wrentham, Suffolk, Elizabeth (16) 2nd dau, William (18) 2nd son, Elizabeth (50), widow of Hum Brewster, Humphry (15) 3rd son, Francis 3rd dau: Anne, eldest dau (23), Painted by Bardwell.' There is an image of this picture and its label in the object history file. There appear to be similarities between the label on the Geffrye Museum painting and that attached to the painting in Colonial Williamsburg.

The Walpole Society Journal has published a number of studies of Thomas Bardwell's work. M. Kirby Talley's 1978 survey of Bardwell's work Thomas Bardwell of Bungay, artist and author 1704-1767 refers to two portraits of interest. Number 114 entitled The Brewster Family, is described as 'With M. Bernard, London in 1966' and as having been 'advertised by M. Bernard and illustrated in black and white on the back cover of Apollo, 83, May 1966.' It is also illustrated in the article. This is the portrait, which is now in the collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Kirby Talley's survey also records number 117 as the Meadows Family. It includes a description of the picture by Davy dating from 1843 and states 'This may well be a description of no 114.'

The identification of the picture at Colonial Williamsburg as a portrait of the Brewster Family raises some questions. The composition of the family group in the Colonial Williamsburg version is at odds with genealogical information about the Brewster family. Information from the Public Record office reveals that by 1736 Francis Brewster's father and father-in law were dead (they died in 1718 and 1721 respectively). In addition his wife had died by this date and he had three, rather than two daughters.

The museum has corresponded with Barbara Luck, Curator of Painting, Drawings and Sculpture at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation about their painting. See the object history file for details. The floor coverings in this portrait was examined in September 2010 as part of the Stories of the World project. A full copy of her research is in the object history file.

Kirby Talley and Karin Groen's article on Bardwell's practice of painting does not include an analysis of this painting. For an article discussing a notebook containing portrait compositions by Thomas Bardwell, see Ellen G. Miles, 'A notebook of portrait compositions by Thomas Bardwell', Walpole Society Journal, 53 (1987), 181-192. A copy of the article is in the object's history file.

The stance of the boy appears to relate to directions set out in Francis Nivelon's The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour published in 1737.
The seated man in the painting is wearing a banyan, which is a particular kind of informal, indoor, undress coat. A similar one is worn by the main figure in plate 2 of Hogarth's series of engravings of 'A Rake's Progress', which shows the Rake's levee.
Display Labels:
Label text for the digital interactive located in the Reading Room (September 2015- June 2017):

Group portrait, probably of Francis Brewster, a linen draper, and his family
By Thomas Bardwell
Oil on canvas, dated 1736

This painting is an example of a ‘conversation piece’, a form of informal portraiture which typically showed its subjects in a stylised or rural setting. It is rare to find a surviving eighteenth-century portrait of this type which shows identified middling sitters in a domestic setting, but we know that the people shown here are the Brewsters of Beccles, Suffolk. The portrait was probably painted after a smallpox outbreak in the area and shows the surviving members of the family, Francis Brewster and four of his children.

Label text for the exhibition At Home with the World, Geffrye Museum (20 March 2012- 9 September 2012):

Group portrait, possibly of the Brewster family
Oil on canvas, signed by Thomas Bardwell, England and dated 1736

The central focus of this painting is a tripod table very similar to the one shown nearby. This piece of furniture had strong associations with politeness, and the family gathered around it is shown engaged in refined behaviours like sewing and reading. The simple but good quality furnishing and relatively plain interior is in keeping with the social and moral values of the people depicted.
Purchased with the assistance of the Art Fund, the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the Geffrye Museum
Ellen G. Miles, 'A notebook of portrait compositions by Thomas Bardwell', Walpole Society Journal, 53 (1987), 181-192.

M. Kirby Talley, 'Thomas Bardwell of Bungay, artist and author 1704-1767', Walpole Society Journal, 46 (1978), 91-163.

M. Kirby Talley and Karin Groen, 'Thomas Bardwell and his practice of painting: a comparitive investigation between described and actual painting technique', Studies in Conservation, 20 (1975), 44-108.

K.Retford, “From the Interior to Interiority:The Conversation Piece in Georgian England”, Journal of Design History, Vol.20, No.4, p. 291-307.

The Brewster Family, Thomas Bardwell, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Francis Nivelon, The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour with twelve engraved plates by L.P Boitard, (London: 1737)

Oil paintings in public ownership in London: North & East. Coordinator: Elizabeth Heath; Photographers: Doug Atfield and Andy Johnson (London: Public Catalogue Foundation, 2013).

Subject/Content: +/-

Content Description:
This group portrait or conversation piece depicts a family group sat around a tripod table in a unostentatious and relatively plain interior. In the background there is a fireplace flanked with framed prints and wall sconces. Above the fireplace there is a framed landscape picture. The table is placed on a carpet. On the table there is a wicker basket containing sewing materials. One of the female sitters is shown sewing while another holds out a pink rose to a small black and white dog under the table. The small boy is shown standing and holding an open book. The composition of the figures shows a clear gender division with female figures on the right and male figures on the left. The stance of the boy is distinctive and relates to suggestions set out in Francis Nivelon's The Rudiments of Genteel Behaviour published in 1737.
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